Wayne Knight talks about The Exes, Newman, and working in the mud for Jurassic Park
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Wayne Knight has found his way into several high-profile films over the years, from Dirty Dancing to Jurassic Park, but he’s generally best remembered for his efforts on the small screen, most notably Seinfeld, where he portrayed perpetually disgruntled postal worker Newman. Now, Knight is once again back in sitcom mode, playing the computer-savvy Haskell Lutz in The Exes, now in its second season on TV Land.
Hot In Cleveland (2010-2011)—“Rick”
The Exes (2011-present)—“Haskell Lutz”
The A.V. Club: IMDb originally had your character’s name on The Exes as Haskell Bing, but that apparently changed at some point before the series premièred.
Wayne Knight: Yeah, I’m glad they got rid of Bing, because then what are you going to do? Have Matthew Perry come on as his brother in season three? [Laughs.] I doubt he’d show.
AVC: How did you find yourself on The Exes in the first place? Presumably, having worked with TV Land in the past didn’t hurt.
WK: Yeah, actually, it came about after I had done a recurring role as Rick, the neighbor on Hot In Cleveland. It worked out very well. Everybody was happy with me being there, I was happy being there. The people at TV Land were saying, “We’d like you on our air,” I said “Great,” so we started talking to people about developing something, and they said, “You know, we’ve got this pilot and we think you’d be really good in it.” And then they grabbed me, put me in a room, and started choking me… No, no, no, it was much friendlier than that. [Laughs.] So we did the pilot, and by gum, we got a pick-up, and off we went.
AVC: TV Land definitely seems to have a handle on what its audience wants to see, in terms of channeling past sitcoms.
WK: Well, one good thing about TV Land is you’re always surrounded by people who know what they’re doing, in terms of your fellow actors. It’s not like you’re finding novices. It’s really very pleasant in the sense that you’ve got people who are good at what they do. It makes coming to work easy. I also like being back at CBS Radford, which has been my sitcom home and television comedy home since The Edge. The Edge was done there, Seinfeld was done there, 3rd Rock From The Sun was done there. So you can imagine that I really like being back there. But I find that the network is clever. It’s basically a couple of guys. [Laughs.] And they don’t even wear suits. So in terms of having “the suits” at the run-through, you don’t! You get the sense that they go out of their way to hire professionals. They give you notes at times if they feel like you’re going in the wrong direction, but other than that, they pretty much leave you alone. And I find that refreshing. And a wise move.
AVC: Has the cast gelled pretty well? Certainly you’ve worked with Kristen Johnston before…
WK: Yeah, I mean, everybody on this cast, this isn’t their first time at the rodeo, so everybody knows what they’re doing in terms of multi-camera. The writing staff is an experienced writing staff in terms of having been on a number of shows. As you say, Kristen and I have worked together in the past and have worked together closely, so we know each other, and that was good. Donald [Faison] is terribly funny and really a nice person, and that reads through the camera. I think he’s very likeable and funny. David Alan Basche has the kind of straight-man skills that go back to Dean Martin or whoever. You don’t expect the comedy coming from him, but it does. Kelly Stables is a combination of cute and sexy and funny, all in one little package, which is powerful. So, yeah, like I said a minute ago, there’s really not a lot of problems coming to work. [Laughs.]
AVC: How would you say your character on the show has developed?
WK: The good thing is that Haskell is kind of a blank slate, or started out that way, so you can discover things about him as you go that then kind of flesh him out. When he started, he was really amorphous. He was just very sedentary, very into to his computer and to his gadgets. Since then, we’ve begun to find things about his backstory, stuff that’s begun to filter out. And that’s great, because you always find things out about this character that you don’t expect. Like, we found out that he was a championship diver when he was younger. That’s definitely the kind of thing you wouldn’t expect. [Laughs.] He also has some serious difficulties with his mother. So these are two divergent aspects of this prism that we’re going to look at over hopefully more time, so you’ll see more facets to this strange gem.
3rd Rock From The Sun (1996-2001)—“Officer Don Orville”
WK: Terry Turner and Bonnie Turner created 3rd Rock, and I had talked to Bonnie and Terry about my doing a show with them, but they didn’t have any availability for a couple years, so it was, like, “Well, we’d like to do a show with you, but we have things that we have to do, so… Would you like to be on 3rd Rock?” And I’m like, “Sure.” So I just kind of worked my way into 3rd Rock that way. I knew Terry back at the University Of Georgia. We both had grown up in the Atlanta, Georgia area, where there was a kids’ show called The Popeye Club that was run by a guy named Officer Don. Officer Don was the host. And we had both known that, so Terry created this character, Officer Don. Originally, I came on just as kind of a one-off, but Kristen and I had this chemistry, and I wound up becoming her boyfriend on the show. It was so comedic seeing her and I as a passionate couple. I had the most fun on 3rd Rock. It was a great show to work on. And, by the way, we eventually did do the pilot, and it didn’t happen for NBC. But the experience of those years at 3rd Rock was a great, great time that I really enjoyed.
AVC: Since he hadn’t been intended as a recurring character, how long did it take to figure out who Don was?
WK: Don was a bit of a martinet from the word go. A very by-the-book, straight-laced kind of guy. That’s why Sally liked him: He embodied the police spirit without necessarily having the police body. Being an alien, she didn’t see that… Much as I didn’t see the fact that, in her alien form, she was actually male! [Laughs.]
The Wanderers (1979)—“Gang Member” (uncredited)
WK: I was in The Wanderers, but I wasn’t really a gang member. I was a waiter at Puglia’s. [Laughs.] This was my first Screen Actors Guild job not as an extra. I was working as an extra on the picture and I got upgraded, and I was so excited. I called my parents, and it was like, “I’m in a movie! This gang movie, The Wanderers!” And I remember it was the first time I’d seen professional character actors. Like, Dolph Sweet was doing this scene at the restaurant, and he asked where the shot was. And they said it was a cowboy shot, which meant from the waist up, so… He didn’t wear pants. He’s sitting there without his pants on because, I don’t know, I guess it was more comfortable for him. And I’m thinking, “These are pros! This is what happens: If you don’t have to, you don’t wear pants!” And it’s for that very reason that I’m not wearing pants as I’m speaking to you right now. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you first enter into acting?
WK: It really started in kindergarten. I went to kindergarten in Cartersville, Georgia, and my kindergarten had 51 kids. Miss Mary Lou, the woman who was in charge of the thing, she was in a wheelchair—she’d broken her hip—and Miss Doris used to wheel her around, spin her wheelchair, and she used to point to you with her cane and stuff like that. We were doing this pageant at the end of the school year, and I had to say this poem. [In a high-pitched voice.] “51 smiles is a lot smiles, and they can go for miles and miles…” So that was my gig. I’m saying the poem. But Miss Mary Lou was rather forgetful. I was supposed to say the poem at the beginning of the show, but she forgot. And then I was supposed to say it at the middle of the show, but she forgot. Probably she just hated the poem, but I didn’t know this. So Miss Doris says to her, “The kid’s got to do this poem! Wayne’s got to do his poem!” “All right, all right, put him on.” I was the last thing for the evening. I go up and stand in front of all of the parents and kids everything and I do my bit. “51 smiles is a lot of smiles…” Well, since that was the last thing on the show, everyone all applauded like crazy. And I’m thinking, “I’m killin’ ’em! I’m killin’ ’em with this poem! They are loving this!” [Laughs.] I’m hearing these cheers and applause, and I’m, like, “This is all for me!”
AVC: So, essentially, your entire career is based on a delusion from kindergarten.
WK: Correct. [Laughs.] But I think most people’s careers in theater are based on delusion. It’s just that mine started early. And then after that, I was in high school, and I kind of kept it quiet, because it’s Cartersville, Georgia, and pretty much the last thing you want to say is that you want to be an actor. But I’m in this speech class, and the teacher says, “You know, you ought to try out for the local theater, the drama tours.” So I thought, “Okay,” and I went and auditioned for this small role in Send Me No Flowers, playing Vito, the cleaner’s delivery boy or something like that. And I went there, and I noticed that there were all these people, sitting on each other’s laps and making out… married people, except that most of them weren’t married to each other. And I thought, “This is fantastic! There’s actually a vague chance that I could get laid doing this!” [Laughs.]
Assaulted Nuts (1985)—cast member
The Edge (1992-1993)—cast member
WK: The Edge! Oh my God. I love Tom Kenny. And Jill Talley. And Jennifer Aniston, too! [Laughs.] Like I said, it’s when I first worked at CBS Radford, which is where it was shot. David Mirkin created it, and… It was wild. We got killed every week. We were shooting that during the L.A. riots, and we had a curfew then, at 7 o’clock or something like that. They told us, “There’s a curfew, and everybody must go home, but you are going to work right up until the curfew.” [Laughs.] So we’re driving home, and there’s like, fires going off and shit. All to do sketch comedy.
AVC: How was the experience of doing a sketch series?
WK: I’ve actually done a couple of sketch shows. I was in a sketch group in New York. I had always enjoyed improv and sketch. It’s an avenue where you get to do characters that you could never do on a straight show, playing people you wouldn’t be able to play, because everybody plays everything. I loved it. Then I did a show in England called Assaulted Nuts, with Emma Thompson. They wanted to do a show where they had three Americans and three Brits, and they were holding auditions in New York. A friend of mine and I, he used to be straight man for me for this character I used to do, he said, “My friend is the casting director on this. Why don’t you come in, I’ll be your straight man, and we’ll do the thing?” So I did it, and the next thing I know, I’m on my way to London. We did two seasons on Channel 4. It was one of the early shows on Channel 4. Unfortunately, it kind of sunk between the ocean, because it was half British humor and half American humor, and it didn’t particularly mix. But it was a great experience.
AVC: Do you still find British fans who say, “Hey, I remember you from when you were in Assaulted Nuts”?
WK: Not really. I don’t know, I think they mostly remember me from 3rd Rock. In some ways, 3rd Rock was a bigger hit in Britain than it was here, because it’s wordy and clever and silly. All of the things that the Brits like.
Jurassic Park (1993)—“Dennis Nedry”
WK: My agent got a call and goes, “Are you sitting down? Steven Spielberg wants you to do Jurassic Park.” And I said, “What?” Apparently, he’d seen me in Basic Instinct and said, “I see him in close-ups, sweating, only instead of open legs, it’s a dinosaur.” [Laughs.] I went to Hawaii, to Kauai, to shoot it. I had never met Spielberg. I’d never auditioned for him. He just cast me. So they’re driving me to my first day of shooting, and it’s up this cane road in Kauai to this place called Blue Hole, which is the rainiest place in the world. It rains like, 360 days a year, and yet they still had rain machines. We pull up in a Jeep through mud to the gates of Jurassic Park they’d built there. The giant gate was right there, and the little guy standing at the base of it is Spielberg. And I walked up to him and was, like, “Dr. Spielberg, I presume. I hope I’m the right guy.” He said, “Yeah, you are.”
AVC: When we spoke to Laura Dern about the film, she casually mentioned that she’d survived a hurricane with Spielberg.
WK: Yeah, Hurricane Iniki was coming right as I was leaving. [Producer] Kathleen Kennedy got a lot of people off the island and onto army transports right before the hurricane hit, but it exfoliated the entire island. It was really bad.
AVC: How did you enjoy the experience of doing the film overall?
WK: Well, the shooting of it was miserable. I’m sliding down things, I’ve got mud all over me, I’m soaking wet, I’m 5 billion pounds, I can barely walk. Yeah, I loved it. [Laughs.]
Punisher: War Zone (2008)—“Micro”
WK: You know, I loved the idea of getting into the Marvel universe and doing something in there. I wasn’t a big Punisher guy, but I went in and read all the Punishers. Then I realized people were all upset about Thomas Jane leaving, and, I mean, who the hell knew? But I looked at the thing and said, “Yes, Micro. I could do Micro.” Then I learned about ordinance, learned about how to handle weapons properly. I had done something on The Edge called “The Armed Family,” where we had semi-automatic sawed-off shotguns and Uzis and shit like that, but I hadn’t held anything like that in years, so I thought, “This’ll be cool.” I mean, working Glocks and shit like that… c’mon! [Laughs.] We shot in Montreal. It was terribly, terribly cold. It was done on a shoestring, but it was a lot of fun. And it was with Doug Hutchison, before he was married to a teenager.
Dirty Dancing (1987)—“Stan”
WK: I mean, what a surprise this was. Because I went in to audition for this thing, and I kind of ad-libbed some jokes or whatever, and… Stan was going to be this small, nothing role in the movie, but it’s a movie! I’m gonna be in a feature! But I had to have my own car and drive up to the Catskills, which is where I thought we were gonna shoot it. As it turned out, we went to Lake Lure, North Carolina, and to Virginia, to shoot at a replica of what would be Brown’s in New York. It was a fantastic experience, though, because we’re trapped in these lodges in these dry counties in the South with Jack Weston and Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop and all these dancers. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. All of us are staying in the same place, in this lodge. And they have trucks going down the hill to other places to bring back alcohol, ’cause there’s nothing to do there except to just watch what happens when you mix young dancers with alcohol. Lemme tell ya, it’s fantastic! [Laughs.]
But, you know, nobody anticipated that this was going to be anything other than a fun enterprise that would come and go. And it just turned out to be such a phenomenon. It was unbelievable. I was a little upset at one point, though, because Cousin Brucie had these lines, and I was like, “Geez, I should have those lines!” [Laughs.] I also remember one time on the film when I had to hand her a live chicken as a prize. “Here you go!” And the film had an actual chicken wrangler. I mean, how often do you run into a chicken wrangler? He was kind of a strange guy. He grabbed the chicken by the neck and he swung the chicken around and over his head. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “This is what you do. You get the blood to rush to the chicken’s feet, and he will be subdued.” I was like, “Okay… I’m glad you’re not handling actors!” [Laughs.] But I have to admit, the chicken was subdued.
Toy Story 2 (1999)—“Al The Toy Collector”
WK: What kills me is that everybody says, “Look, the character, it’s amazing they made the likeness exactly like you!” I’m like, “No, they didn’t!” The guy’s bald! Just because I had a goatee time doesn’t mean that they made it to look like me. And I seldom fall asleep with Cheetos dust blowing off my voluminous girth. [Laughs.] But you know, I was doing a play in New York, maybe Art at the time, so I had to do sessions with John Lasseter from New York. Nowadays stuff like Skype is no big deal, but at the time, the idea of having a video link and an audio link from a sound studio—Lasseter is in the bottom corner of the screen, looking at me, and I’m looking at him and I’m doing the takes. I just thought, “This is terribly, terribly high-tech. But here I am in the world of Pixar. I’ve entered the future.”
Rat Race (2001)—“Zack Mallozzi”
WK: Who knew that Rat Race would be filmed all over Canada? [Laughs.] It was, like, Air Force bases in Alberta, in the middle of the wilderness. I remember that this was at a time when I was trying to come off my choice of using a shovel to act with. [Laughs.] And that really wasn’t necessary, because they wanted me to bring my shovel. I would do, like, five takes, and then Jerry Zucker was basically saying, “Do one more take with the shovel. For fun! Just for fun.” And then when I saw the movie, every single shovel take was the one he used. The ones where I tried to incorporate my subtle comedy skills? He was like, “Forget that. Just slather it on!”
Space Jam (1996)—“Stan Podolak”
WK: Space Jam was kind of like… [Pauses.] It’s what I think of as a new definition of “Hell.” Because it was all green screen. The entire thing was green screen, so there isn’t an actor for miles around. You’re just in green screen with people in little green ninja suits walking around on their knees to approximate the size of the cartoon characters you’re going to be speaking to. And then later on they’ll let in basketball players. [Laughs.] But no actors! Just a set. I just have a fuse lit up my ass, and I’m in an empty space. That’s pretty much it. And then Bill Murray came along, and I was fascinated to see what he would do. He was like, “Can you stand over there, kid? ’Cause I wanna golf with Michael, okay? Thank you.”
Born On The Fourth of July (1989)—“Official #2—Democratic Convention”
JFK (1991)—“Numa Bertel”
WK: Well, working with Oliver Stone is a fascinating experience, because it’s like being held hostage in a bank holdup. [Laughs.] You want to try to make friends with the guy, but he could kill you, and you don’t know when you’re getting out, and you’ve got to prove yourself at all times. With the first film, we’re pushing Tom Cruise and having this conversation with Johnny C. McGinley and improv-ing with him, and Oliver’s happy that I’m improv-ing with him well. We’re in Houston at the Astrodome or whatever, and I’m really excited to be in this big movie in this small part and just watching Cruise just be fired up all day long. I’m like, “Wow, uh, that’s a lot of ‘fired up.’” [Laughs.]
In terms of JFK, Numa Bertel was… The audition for that, I went in with [casting directors] Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, and they said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t be actor-y.” I’m like, “What?” “Don’t be actor-y. Oliver doesn’t like actor-y.” What does that mean, “Don’t be actor-y”? I mean, are you afraid I’m going to walk in and go [In a deep voice with a crisp British accent] “How do you do?” So I didn’t know what that even meant, but when I went in… See, I’d grown up in northwest Georgia, so for the character, I did this guy. [In a Southern accent] Kind of a shitkicker accent, a fella like he’s from Bartow County, like some of these boys I’d known. And Oliver loved that. But when I got down there, I actually met Numa Bertel, and Numa’s from New Orleans. His dialect is completely diametrically opposed to that! So I said, “I’ve got to do it right. If we’re doing this guy and he’s from New Orleans, I’ve got to do that.” And, uh, he didn’t want me to do that. But I eventually convinced him. And I would have these days where he would say, “Hey, you’re gonna speak today. You think you can handle it?” Uh, yeah, thanks, Oliver. [Laughs.] He’s rough trade, that man.
WK: That was just a straight audition. I came in did the audition, got the job for the one-off of Newman. Larry David had done the voice of Newman prior. They’d created this idea of this guy who was kind of like the building snitch. Originally, the plan was that he was the landlord’s son or nephew and he was a snitch. In this one scene… The question of the episode was, “How long do you have to wait for a guy who’s in a coma to hit on his girlfriend?” And I’m sitting in there as a friend of Kramer’s, and we’re visiting the guy in the coma, and we see that Jerry is making time with his girlfriend. And I vow to tell the guy when he comes out of his coma about this, and I get bought up with a Drake’s Cake. So that’s the episode. And I think that when Michael [Richards] and I were sitting next to each other in that scene, it was like something from the 1939 World’s Fair. I mean, there was this big tall obelisk and this rotund kind of spherical shape, and… They just seemed historically suited. It was kind of like odd kismet. And I just kept coming back. I kept thinking, “They’re gonna make me a regular on this thing!” But, uh, no. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have a favorite Newman-centric episode?
WK: My favorite episode is pretty early, actually. It’s part of a two-parter: “The Ticket,” where Newman trades his radar detector for a motorcycle helmet, and then he gets picked up for speeding, and he’s got to go to court and testify as to why he was speeding. It was because he never became a banker. [Laughs.] I have this courtroom scene where I was just full-out explosive, trying to… Well, it’s just way over the top, but Newman was committed and truthful and honestly angrier than he possibly could be. It was just fun to do, and I thought it was very funny. It’s not one of the grand remembered episodes, but it’s my favorite.
Basic Instinct (1992)—“John Correli”
WK: This is very interesting, because, you know, everybody asks, “Was she…? Did he…?” Blah blah blah blah blah. The more important thing for me was the audition. Paul Verhoeven was a very interesting guy in dirty jeans. You walk in the door, and he’s got a camera on you at “hello.” It was like, I dunno, a pornographer? “Please, take off your clothes.” [Laughs.] So we’re doing the scene, and he goes [Adopts a Dutch accent] “Okay, now you look at her. You look, you look, you look. Now maybe what if you give a lick? Maybe a lick. A lick of the tongue. Maybe you do a lick.” So I did a lick. He goes, “That’s good, that’s good. Maybe you do another lick. Maybe lick, lick.” So I did another. “That’s still good. Maybe we do another lick. Lick, lick, lick.” So I go lick, lick, lick. He goes, “That’s too many licks.” [Laughs.] So I wound up with two licks.
Mathnet (1990)—“Peter Pickwick”
WK: [Laughs.] Of course I remember Mathnet. Because it was in the early days of my career, and I was thinking, “Well, this is a union gig! I’m very excited!” I’m very proud to have done Mathnet, though. Very proud to do my part for the young people’s education. And now that I have a young son, after all these years, I’m very glad that I did it, and I hope one day he will see that episode. Peter Pickwick on Mathnet. How could I ever forget?
Torchwood (2011)—“Brian Friedkin”
WK: No real stories about that, but I will say that I really enjoyed doing Torchwood, because I was a fan of the show already. I’d been downloading and watching the British version, anyway, so I didn’t have to do a lot of prep work to be ready for that one.
Everybody’s All-American (1988)—“Fraternity Pisser”
WK: Again, I’m doing the shitkicker accent, the same one I ultimately didn’t do in JFK. It’s just this one-scene role, but they fly me to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and it turns out this is a rain-cover set. Three weeks later, I’m still there. [Laughs.] I’m still in Baton Rouge, in a hotel room, no car or anything, just walking around the city, completely loose. “Today? You think today?” “Call in at 2. And then call in at 4. And then tomorrow.” It was like jury duty. It was just the longest period of time. But the next thing you know, three weeks later, we’re on a soundstage, or what approximates a soundstage, they’ve set up this urinal, and I’m going in there with Tim Hutton and Dennis Quaid. I’m next to Dennis Quaid, and I give my line. [In a thick Georgia drawl.] “Are you the Grey Ghost? Can I shake yer hand?” And he says, “Do you mind if I finish first,” or whatever. That’s the whole scene. We finished—I did it in one take—and they said, “Are you a local?” I go, “No, they flew me out from L.A.!” “Well, good job. So long!” [Laughs.]